How to Write Haiku
by Jim Kacian
This article contains a set of suggested practices. It is not intended that you follow all, or even any, of them, but simply that you get an idea of some of the ways in which poets go about writing haiku. Some may be obvious, some obscure. Some will work for you and some won’t. It’s more important that you find your own way ultimately. Perhaps this will get you started.
Don’t Think – Be
The very first thing is perhaps the hardest thing of all: You don’t write haiku – they are written through you.
Archibald MacLeish famously wrote “A poem should not mean, but be”. There is a great deal of substance to this very brief poetic, but central to it is the idea that the poem should be an entity unto itself, not a soapbox from which to orate, not an object to be manipulated by our whims or political positions. A poem has its own integrity, its own life, and the poet’s job is to bring this poem to life by letting it mature, then refining it so it is as good as it can be before releasing it to the world. A haiku is a poem, and all this is true for haiku as it is for other poems.
So the first thing to do when preparing to write haiku is to decide against knowing best. The poem must know best, must speak for itself, must have its own logic and emotion and essence. Let go, let yourself be as objective as you possibly can be – that’s already subjective enough – and take in impressions directly, without the usual filtering of the rational mind. This is not easily achieved, and requires constant practice, or the reasoning part of the mind, accustomed to controlling things, will indeed insist that it have the last word, and that will prove to be the death of poetry. Reason is important, but it must know its place, just as other elements must.
Don’t have a goal that you must write a haiku: The real goal, after all, is not to write haiku, but to see more clearly, be in touch more deeply with where you live. You have not achieved the goal if you fill a notebook full of poems but none of them is deeply lived, if you are not changed by being part of the process. But if you are determined to write, a haiku will find you, if there is one to be found and if you are ready and open for it.
Remember, too, that not all poems are haiku. Let yourself be open to whatever comes along. You just may find you’ve got a free verse poem, or a sonnet, or perhaps a sketch, a piece of music, welling up from your openness. Take the creative moment for what it is.
Find a Working Routine
I find walking stimulates my writing, or rather, when I walk, I can’t help but write. This is not so convenient as if I wrote while seated, say, but one takes what one can get. I find it’s useful to me, when hiking along the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I live, to carry a small pad and pencil. I try not to get too hung up about writing everything down, because often a word or phrase will be enough to make me recall the whole train of thought. I try to allow myself to flow, physically as well as mentally, which results in ease and variety and new places to go every time, even as my body is travelling through the ever-new and changing panorama of the mountains season after season.
Find a place where you can relax and let this flow happen. And then, write.
Keep the Tools Sharp
Write everything down. Don’t edit or judge – just write. I find it particularly useful to focus on some one object, large or small. Perhaps it’s the new growth on the rhododendrons growing on the mountain ridge, as it was today. Or maybe it’s the colour of the rocks greening up after rain. Or the sound a snake makes moving through fallen leaves. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, it only matters that you pay close attention to it, and record it. It may not make a great haiku (and it may, but you won’t know this for quite a while), but it will make a great warm-up exercise. And that’s all we’re doing, limbering up.
And paying attention. We will need to repeat this exercise – a lot. The more you do it, the more fluent will become your use of language, and language is your stock in trade. If you can have the language, and its tools and techniques, at your disposal for these exercises, then you’ll have them ready when you are visited with inspiration. The better you get, the better your poems will be, and the more likely you will be able to find the right word and the right means of expressions for those moments when you most need them.
the moon coming up
through new buds
the river shows through the still (mostly) naked branches
and picks up the light
something about this . . .
Invite the Muse
There is a saying in Japan: “The first line is from heaven”. This is a fancy way of saying that inspiration plays a role in every successful haiku (or other poem). So already you’re a third of the way done . . .
You’ll know it when inspiration strikes. Something moves you in a way that it hasn’t before, or you see something in a light you’ve never before considered. It sticks in your mind’s eye, and insists that you look at it. It’s knotting, clotting, taking shape. All you have to do is attend to it.
Then comes the hard part: what is it about that moment that made it different? This is a really difficult and deep question, since the answer resides somewhere deep within the very nature of who you are. Why have you been predisposed to see something one way, and today, another? Being clear and honest about these things is difficult, especially since habit often keeps us from seeing the way we actually are. But a poet is committed to making this search, and the reward of such a search often is self-knowledge, and an ability to see more clearly.
If we are able to come to terms with our moment, literally, we have probably written a haiku. But what we are most likely to have written so far is a first (or last, or middle) line, the gift from our personal muse, and some notes about some relationship found there.
It is useful to remember that this is a joint effort between you and your inspiration. We don’t get Muse’s block, but writer’s block. We are the ones who need to remain open and searching-and grateful. That first line is a lot.
The remainder of the poem is the poet’s business.
Relate [to] the Experience
Now comes the work.
A very good rule of thumb is, whenever you’re not sure about how to proceed, go back to the source, the moment of revelation and inspiration. Imagine again what happened. Remember the order of events. Remember every detail, where you were standing, the angle of the sun, the scent of the air, the feel of your clothes, the glimpse of the plane passing overhead. Everything combined to make your moment cohere. Re-imagining it will help you remember what about it made it matter so.
Write down all these events, in the order they happened. This is often really important, since a change in order can undo the sense which made the moment a revelation. Be as specific as you can be. Don’t skip anything.
Once it’s all down, put it away and forget about it. The content in haiku is timeless – there’s no hurry. And the only thing that matters is that you get it absolutely right. So rather than rush it along, let it trickle through your subconscious for a while. This will help the moment to crystallise further, and also give you perspective on whether it really was the mind-shattering event you think it might be.
coming back to the way the moon is shining on the river
there is something at play between the flow of the water and the shining upon it
i’m walking down the deer path, just coming over the oak ridge
it’s just gloaming, and getting hard to see
when i clear the ridge, the river comes into view
i can see it because it is dark and smooth against the bushiness of the shore
but also because the moon moves across it, longitudinally as i approach
and the moonlight follows the sinuous course of the river
white on the whitewater, almost can see (can see!) the flow pattern in the river
white on the rocks, too, and on the leaves
a jet high up catches the last of the sunlight, glints, is gone
When you’ve laid it aside long enough to have forgotten about it (2 days? 2 weeks? 2 months?), get out your notes and take a look. This is why you want to write down all the details, so you can go back over it in your mind’s eye. What is truly essential to the moment? Perhaps that aeroplane was passing overhead, and you heard it, but the essence of the moment was the way the light of the moon played off the movement of the river. The plane was present, but incidental. So you will probably omit it from the final poem. It would only serve to distract the reader toward something which does not ultimately enter into the moment of insight.
When you’ve reconsidered the whole event, eliminated everything that feels extraneous, found the words that allow you to recreate the moment, write it down in its new, poem-shaped form, and … forget it all again.
the way the moon moves on the moving of the river
the white path following the path the water follows
the moon . . . the river . . .
Rediscovering your Moment
Go on with your life. Visit again and again with the muse. Enjoy your routine. Keep your tools sharp. Experience many more moments, rattle them around inside, write them down. Do this again and again. Fill lots of notebooks. This is what a poet does – writes and writes and writes.
And then, sometime later, perhaps much later, perhaps years later-open up that old notebook.
What do you see? Probably lots of sketches – those warm-up exercises – and maybe the occasional note to yourself to look up a word, or learn the name of a certain kind of tree, or a drawing of the rock formation at the summit of one of your favourite hikes. You read through, and remember the day on which you wrote this, what it was like, what you felt, what you were wearing.
Then you come to one particular poem, and it stops you in your tracks – this is a truly interesting poem. It has an energy so vivid that it brings the moment back to you as though you were experiencing it again afresh. It’s just the way you remembered – well, not exactly as you remembered. Actually, it was a little more “coming down the ridge” than “topping” it. And maybe the emphasis here is not exactly right – perhaps it would be better to lead with the river itself. Yes, that’s it exactly – the moment, in words.
the white path the river makes
out of the moon
coming clear of the ridge
Editing is the most onerous (for most) part of writing. But you’ve already done it, changed a word here or there, altered the emphasis, reconsidered it, made it whole. Good editing is not intended to destroy the moment, but rather to expose it as clearly and truthfully as it is possible to do. It is not always easy to recognise exactitudes when we are close to an experience. But a little distance from the event usually makes us better judges of just how things went, and what their significance was. It usually helps us make better decisions about the exact word, the exact order, the exact shade of meaning.
In such a subtle form and sensibility as haiku, exactitude is extremely important, and waiting for the moment when the poem is far enough removed from us that we can make a clean decision about it is a very wise idea. This will keep you from releasing a poem before it is ready, and so keep your reputation as a poet at its highest level. You will be judged as a poet by what you publish, what you are willing to release with your name affixed. Why settle for anything less than your best?
And there is really no hurry – the content of haiku is such that it doesn’t really age or go out of style. A moment of insight is a moment of insight – this cannot change. And, the longer you let a poem mature, the longer your exposure to haiku, the greater your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, the more mature your taste.
The muse visits all indiscriminately – editing is where great writers are made.
the river makes
of the moon
Once the demands of the moment are met, then other demands, such as literary demands, can be met. You have captured what was distinctive about your moment. Now you need to pay some attention to what is distinctive about the way you convey your moment.
There are many ways of displaying your personal voice: Word choices, subject matter, visual aspects of the poem, grammar/syntax. But ultimately it will be a combination of all these elements which puts your stamp on your work. Is it possible to look at a poem so short and seemingly formulaic and know who’s poem it is? It is possible to share similar experiences – the fact that we recognise them inside ourselves is an indication we have met this moment somewhere before. But the recording of these experiences belong distinctively to each of these poets. And so should yours.
To Sum Up
Simplify; get yourself into the right frame of mind; sharpen your tools; pay attention; write it down hot; let it cool; look over your work dispassionately; let it cool some more; revise the poems that seem worth the trouble; lay them aside again; see if the moment recreates your experience. You’ll know it when you’ve got a “keeper”.
Editor’s note: This article, which is a slightly shortened version of the original appears here with the author’s permission.
Jim Kacian is a former president of the Haiku Society of America (HSA), past editor of Frogpond, co-founded The Haiku Foundation, and is owner and publisher of Red Moon Press. He has won numerous awards for his haiku and his work is published around the world. Two of his poems appear on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. He lives in Virginia in the US.